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Historiker und Herrschaft: Nationsbildung und Geschichtspolitik in Weissrussland im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, and: Handbuch der Geschichte Weissrusslands (review)
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.4 (2003) 998-1008

Rainer Lindner, Historiker und Herrschaft: Nationsbildung und Geschichtspolitik in Weissrussland im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert [The Historian and Power: Nation-Building and Historical Politics in Belarus in the 19th and 20th Centuries]. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1999. 536 pp. ISBN 3-486-56455-2.
Dietrich Beyrau and Rainer Lindner, eds. Handbuch der Geschichte Weissrusslands [Handbook of Belarusian History]. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2001. 543 pp. ISBN 3-525-36255-2.

In the last decade, a major shift has taken place in the historiography of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. For a long time, the analytic interests of most historians were centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the peripheral areas of the empire were largely ignored. Today, historians are emphasizing the diversity of the former Soviet Union; and an abundance of new histories have emerged to treat specific themes in "peripheral" cities such as Kiev, Odessa and Warsaw. Furthermore, a large body of theoretical literature on nationalism has also encouraged historians to pay more attention to ethnic identity in specific regions of the empire. Yet even with the current stress on regional history, not all regions have been treated equally. For example, while Poland and Ukraine have been subjected to intense historical analysis at home and abroad, Belarus has been largely ignored. Surrounded almost entirely by Russia to the east, Poland to the west, and Ukraine to the south, Belarus has escaped the gaze of most historians.

Fortunately, a monograph and a compilation of essays have now been published to help fill the gap. In Historiker und Herrschaft: Nationsbildung und Geschichtspolitik in Weissrussland, Rainer Lindner has provided us with a well-researched and thought-provoking history of historians in Belarus. Starting in the 19th century and ending in the present, Lindner's monograph assesses the role historians played in helping to create the modern Belarusian nation. Lindner argues that the activity of these historians was inextricably linked with the politics of the day. As the title of his monograph suggests, the historians used their works to shape political power and the process of nation building. The collection edited by Lindner and Dietrich Beyrau, in contrast, presents a broad selection of essays that spans the entire spectrum of Belarusian history. Whereas Lindner's monograph offers insights into historians of the past, the collection of essays will inform us of the activity of contemporary historians of Belarus. In this review essay, I first look at Lindner's work and then turn to the Handbuch.

Historiker und Herrschaft is divided into four chronologically ordered parts: nation-building and national history in late imperial Russia; nation and history during Stalinism, 1924-44; the politics of history (Geschichtspolitik) between World War II and the Thaw, 1944-54; nation-building and the politics of history in the late- and post-Soviet era. Each section then looks at a number of different aspects of the development of a national history, the specific political climate in which certain works emerged and how this affected the writings of major historians. To support its claims, the monograph uses ample archival sources, journal articles, academic and popular histories.

Although the first books on Belarusian history per se were published in the 19th century, scholars had enormous difficulties trying to establish a school of national history. While nationalism was flourishing in Western Europe, the tsarist government did its best to prevent any similar phenomenon in its western borderlands. Under Nicholas I, the expression "Belarusian" was banned (1840) and after the Polish uprisings in 1863, Alexander II subjected the region to a more intense russification. Had historians been allowed to publish works emphasizing a unique course for Belarusian history, there is no guarantee they would have found readers for their works. The region had low literacy rates until at least the revolution; and the Belarusian population was overwhelmingly rural, making up a scant 1 percent of the urban population. Without a concentrated urban population, nationalist ideas could only be disseminated with great difficulty. Jews, Russians, and Poles dominated in urban centers such as Minsk and Vilna (Lindner, 28-31).

Nevertheless, the politicization of the empire by the early...

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